Jays From the Couch presents to Jeff Q’s bi-weekly Toronto Blue Jays statistical adventure!
Welcome all to another Blue Jays Statstravaganza. Last we spoke, the Jays were in the midst of a strong 9-5 (.643) start. After Wednesday’s loss against the Twins, the Jays found themselves with a still solid 17-13 (.567) record, having gone 8-8 in the interim without Josh Donaldson. This represents the Jays best record on May 2nd since 2009, when they were owners of a 17-9 (.654) record. Before that, you’d have to go all the way back to 2001 (17-10, .630).
Expected run differential per game: The Blue Jays are doing a lot of important things well
Over those first 14 games, the team was able to produce an impressive 1.3 run differential per game. That has fallen to a 0.9 RD/G, which is still the sixth-best mark in the majors. Importantly, my handy new metric, expected run differential per game (xRD/G), suggests that things have been very sustainable so far (feel free to pause and revisit my initial post for a thorough explanation). The Jays own a 0.6 xRD/G, the ninth-best mark in the majors and fifth-best in the AL. That too has fallen a little since mid-April, when it sat at 0.9.
A quick look at the graph above produces a few useful observations. First, the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees are playing great baseball. They lead the MLB in RD/G and are in the Top 5 in terms of xRD/G. So, not only are the three superteams scoring a lot more runs than they’re conceding, they’re excelling at five key underlying stats as well—the xRD/G equation accounts for xwOBA for batters, the rotation and bullpen; BsR per 600 PA; DRS per 150 games.
Second, Cleveland remains unlucky. They have a decent 16-13 record and a positive run differential (0.2 RD/G). However, they have the second-best xRD/G in the majors (1.2), suggesting that they’re doing everything very well, overall. They will surely end up with an RD/G much higher than 0.2 by season’s end, if not sooner. The two of three series win against them is evidence that the Jays can compete against the best teams in baseball.
The Jays have been the fifth-best team in the AL. They rank fourth in RD/G, but I would slot Cleveland ahead of them given their extremely good xRD/G. The Jays do have the edge over the Angels at this point, with a better RD/G and xRD/G. The Mariners, thought to be the third team in the mix for the second wild card spot, are not doing too well. They’re obviously quite content with their 17-12 record, but an even run differential and even worse xRD/G (-0.4) suggest that good luck has been an important part of their good record.
Hitting: This team can hit
Now, let’s take a deep dive into the Jays’ underlying performances, starting with their biggest strength in 2018: hitting. They are hitting very, very well. Pitching might win championships, but a killer offence means that no game is ever done, evidenced by the amount of late inning runs the team has generated already.
The offence is generating tons of runs. Interestingly, they seem to be getting lucky in one sense—they’re scoring more runs per game than their underlying hitting (wRC+) would suggest—but unlucky in another—their hitting outcomes (wRC+) aren’t exactly reflective of their excellent underlying contact (xwOBA)—with the two basically cancelling each other out—an elite xwOBA justifies an elite RD/G.
The strong hitting has come from all three key components. The Jays are among the league leaders in walks (BB%), a little above-average at avoiding strikeouts (K%) and peerless in terms of contact quality (xwOBA on batted balls). Interestingly, not only do they lead the league in xwOBA on batted balls (completely expected, given their power), they lead in xBA on batted balls as well. The implication is that they are not only producing the kind of contact that results in extra bases, they are consistently producing contact that generates base hits, in general.
That’s a huge indication that this team is different. They aren’t a go big or go home team. They hit for power, but they also hit for contact. That’s a dangerous combination. Even the August/September 2015 Blue Jays mustered only a .393 xwOBA on batted balls and a .339 xBA on batted balls—which is still a lot, both marks ranked second in the majors over that time frame, after only the Nationals. Two months is longer than one month, but it’s still a very impressive start.
The traditional luck numbers are less useful nowadays, given that we can examine the quality of balls in play directly via xwOBA and xBA. That said, I think it’s always worth reviewing the two metrics. The Jays have the league’s lowest BABIP, a good sign that the team has been robbed of their share of base hits (corroborated by the massive gap between their xBA and BA on batted balls).
They also have a very high HR/FB%, a potential sign of good luck. However, context suggests that that’s not the case here. They have the second-best barrel rate in the majors, which suggests that a high proportion of those fly balls should be going for home runs. Moreover, the fact that the team has a much higher xwOBA than wOBA on batted balls implies that, if anything, they should have a higher HR/FB%. It’s also worth noting that the Jays produced a 14.6% HR/FB% from 2015-2017, third-best in the majors. A high HR/FB% is normal for the Jays.
This offence seems to be solid and sustainable.
Base Running: Good enough
The team’s base running is far from elite, but it’s not the black hole it was last year. The Jays have been slightly below-average base runners. Their strength in this regard has been an ability to make good decisions on the base paths (captured by UBR/600). That makes sense—they may lack burners, but they have a lot of guys with average-ish speed and a good baseball IQ. The team has managed to be average at avoiding double plays, but has not been effective at stealing bases.
Starting Pitching: Ugh
Curious how well the starting pitching has been? The best MLB rank across all of those statistics below is 15. No matter how you slice it, the Jays rotation has been problematic. There are no bad luck excuses to be found. Sure, they have a high BABIP and a high HR/FB%, but they’re well-supported by their high xwOBA and xBA on batted balls. Teams that give up tons of extra-base contact (high xwOBA on batted balls, high barrel rate) will have a high HR/FB%. Similarly, teams that give up a lot of base-hit contact (high xBA on batted balls) will have a high BABIP. Both marks seem pretty justified to me.
As a group, they’ve pitched terribly, with terrible outcomes as a result. It really is a testament to the team’s hitters and bullpen that they have such a good RD/G and xRD/G. That said, the rotation dragged the 2016 Jays to the playoffs, so they’ve earned some slack. Another month or so of this might be a different story.
Relief Pitching: Back to good news
The Blue Jay bullpen is once again a key strength, vitally important given the struggles of the rotation. While it feels like they have been used quite a bit this season, Jays relievers have actually pitched the fourth-fewest innings in the majors. The rotation has been bad, but they’ve managed to eat innings pretty well (eighth-most innings pitched).
The quality of the bullpen is evident in its Top 10 FIP and xwOBA. They’re striking out batters more often than the average bullpen and giving up walks much less often than average, producing a great strikeout-to-walk ratio. Moreover, the contact they’ve given up has been a little bit weaker than average, evident in their barrel rate, xwOBA on batted balls and xBA on batted balls.
They’ve also been a little lucky, though not to the extent that their success has been a mirage. More along the lines of a good bullpen appearing great. Their second-best in the majors ERA is not really supported by their fundamentals. Their batted ball outcomes have been less dangerous than expected, given the underlying contact (xwOBA > wOBA). And they have the league’s highest strand rate, which should regress towards the mean over time and cause their ERA to regress towards their FIP.
The bullpen’s propensities to give up homers, fly balls and barrels are interesting. On the one hand, the ‘pen has a very average HR/9. On the other hand, it’s running a much lower-than-average HR/FB%, implying that Jay relievers have been lucky and that their HR/9 “should” rise. On the other other hand, the ‘pen has a better-than-average barrel rate, implying that the HR/9 “should” fall. I love baseball and its numbers.
All in all, this is a good bullpen that hasn’t been overtaxed and should continue to be good to go in 2018.
Fielding: Good or bad, depending on who you ask
One of the most curious statistical quirks of the season is the continued gap between the Jays’ defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR), the two primary advanced fielding metrics. Obviously, as the two metrics aren’t exactly the same, such a gap isn’t unusual.
The Jays are an above-average defensive team in terms of DRS (5), but a below-average team in terms of UZR (-7.2). After doing some digging, I think I’ve figured out the reasons for this gap. First off, while DRS covers pitchers and catchers, UZR does not. That’s an issue for the Jays, whose pitchers and catchers are above-average fielders in terms of DRS—the team is tied for fourth in pitcher DRS (2), while Russell Martin leads all catchers with 5 DRS. Second, Kevin Pillar is tied for sixth among CF in DRS (3), but is considered below-average by UZR (-1.4). All told, the gap between the Jays’ DRS and UZR is 12.2. The pitchers, Russ and Pillar account for 11.4 of those fielding runs. Curious observation explained!
In summation, the more complete fielding statistic (DRS) rates the Jays as an above-average fielding team.
Looking Ahead: Tough schedule over the next couple of weeks
The Jays (17-13, 0.9 RD/G, 0.6 xRD/G) have a run of series ahead of them against fairly solid teams. This weekend, the Jays play in Tampa Bay (13-16, -0.2 RD/G, -0.7 xRD/G), which is never an easy series. That said, the team is missing a lot of the players who used to torment us. Those cutbacks have limited the Rays to the tenth-best xRD/G in the AL. Next week, the Jays have a home stand against the Mariners (17-12, 0 RD/G, -0.4 xRD/G) and the Red Sox (22-9, 2.1 RD/G, 0.9 xRD/G). The Mariners seem fortunate to have a winning record, given their poor run differentials, so hopefully the home team can take at least two of three.
The Red Sox series will be a great rematch. The Sox took two out of three in a tight series (+1 RD). The Sox edged the Jays out in batter xwOBA, .317 to .315. The Red Sox have been producing so far, with the league’s number one run differential per game driving them to the best record in the majors. However, their underlying performances aren’t much different than the Blue Jays’. The two teams (Boston, then Toronto) rank one and two in batter xwOBA, and seven and eight in bullpen xwOBA.
The Sox have a big edge in terms of rotation xwOBA so far. Their .298 mark is second-best in the majors, while the Jays rank 24th (.367). On the other hand, the Sox have struggled with fielding (-7.5 DRS/150, 28th-best) and base running (-0.8 BsR/600, 24th-best) this season. The Red Sox’ 0.9 xRD/G (4th in AL) ranks just ahead of the Jays’ 0.6 mark (5th).
The Jays’ first taste of interleague action this season comes against the Mets (17-12, 0.2 RD/G, 0.1 xRD/G). They’ve been outperforming their fundamentals so far. Then, there is a West Coast home stand, with the A’s (15-15, 0 RD/G, 0 xRD/G) and Angels (18-12, 0.3 RD/G, 0.3 xRD/G) visiting the Dome. The Athletics are average or worse at everything but hitting, at which they are very good (.350 xwOBA, sixth-best). Overall, they’re an average team who could float around the playoff race and sneak in, if they get a few breaks.
The Angels seem to represent the Blue Jays’ primary 2018 rivals. Whichever team finishes ahead of the other will have a very good chance of qualifying for the playoffs. They’ve been pretty average at hitting (.334 xwOBA, 14th) and pitching (.333 SP xwOBA, 14th; .339 RP xwOBA, 23rd) and exceptional at fielding (4.4 DRS/150, sixth) and base running (1 BsR/600, third).
Overall, they’ve been fortunate to have an 18-12 record, given their relatively limited run differentials—the Angels rank 12th in the majors in RD/G and 13th in xRD/G. That said, they too will be in the playoff race deep into the season.
Concluding Thoughts: The Jays have played like playoff contenders so far
This is a solid team as presently constructed, both in terms of quality and resilience. The offence is for real, powered by some of the best hitting in the majors and base running that isn’t terrible. The rotation has been bad, though it has managed to eat innings reasonably well. While it hasn’t been unlucky, there will surely be some positive regression in the coming weeks. The bullpen is once again Top 10. The defence above-average, according to DRS. Overall, the Jays own the sixth-best run differential per game (RD/G) and the ninth-best expected RD/G (xRD/G) in the majors, marking them as a Top 10 team.
The resilience of the Blue Jays has been just as impressive. A big part of that is the balance the team has. If you rank Jays individually, in terms of overall quality, there is a slow, steady decrease from one player to the next, aside from the initial drop from Josh Donaldson to whomever you think the Jays’ second-best player is—Justin Smoak or Marcus Stroman, based on last season’s fWAR, though other possibilities would be reasonable too (make your case in the comments). When a player gets hurt or needs a break, his replacement is not much worse. In cases like Teoscar Hernandez (.501 xwOBA!) replacing Randal Grichuk (.326 xwOBA) and Lourdes Gurriel (.336 xwOBA) replacing Devon Travis (.271 xwOBA), the replacement was a significant improvement.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.